Over at the First Things blog Stephen M. Barr and I have the following exchange regarding a story about the latest evolutionary psychology explanation (Why Women Hate Snakes):
Barry Arrington: Who doesn’t love evolutionary psychology? We can make up stories all day long explaining any phenomenon we like, and then we can explain its inverse with equal élan, without even the remotest chance of our story being falsified. But is it science?
Stephen M. Barr: Dear Barry, Is evolutionary psychology all bad? A lot of it is just common sense. Consider a simple example: Why do men have more upper body strength and more aggressive tendencies? Is it possibly related somehow to the fact that women who were pregnant or caring for small children were in the circumstances in which we evolved more vulnerable and less able to provide for themselves, and that men had therefore to defend them and provide for them? Does anyone really doubt this quite obvious evolutionary explanation? Can it be “proven”? No. Science is not mathematics. It is not about rigorous proof, but explanatory power.
We should apply the same standards of reasonableness to scientific explanations as to other kinds. Suppose I see a man with a smoking gun in his hand standing over the body of a man who has just been shot. Can I “prove” he shot him? Probably not. Can the theory that he did be rigorously “tested”? Probably not. Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidence may be such as produce reasonable certainty. So it often is in science.
Many “stories”, both in science and everyday life, are very convincing and credit-worthy, without being “testable” in some rigorous way